*UPDATED* Over the last month we’ve used the Freefly Alta on a few different commercial jobs, and it’s not the be all and end all system that flies anything and in any conditions that we hoped for (which I admit was probably a bit ambitious). It has its let downs and a few small issues. But overall it is the best system I have ever used.
Most of the systems we have used over the past 5 years have been entirely built and maintained in-house, and with these we have never had any major incidents due to failure. The only major failure we have had was an RTF S900 we purchased, which decided to flip for no reason we can ascertain. Since that incident we decided never to use a system not built by us again, until the Alta, and it actually didn’t take much to convince us to get one.
The issue with self-built systems is that testing, tuning, and configuration of the system is a never ending process, trying to find the right motor, prop, frame, esc, battery and gimbal configuration is a nightmare and it means every system is different. It also means all the small companies that build them don’t have the resources to test for every point of failure over extended periods of time, so we can never know for sure a component wont fail on us or when. Pretty much all the systems out there being used for aerial filming are built on this small scale, and don’t have anything close to the failure-rate data that full size aircraft have. This is why the CAA very sensibly impose restrictions on small drone systems, especially heavier ones that can cause more damage. The way around this is to build in redundancy so that if something fails, its backed up, and have very strict operating procedures to limit risk. But this isn’t ideal either. The way forward is more integrated systems, built and tested to destruction over long periods of time, with an extensive amount of data on the limits of that system, bringing us closer to full size aircraft reliability.
Freefly kit has always been well thought out and well designed. After hearing more and more about the Altas development, the years of testing and refinement and the testing they put each and every system through before being sent to customers, it was a no-brainer. Finally a pro system built from the ground up for aerial filming, and tested to destruction for performance and reliability, with loads of test data to keep the CAA happy. It looked to be the answer to many of the annoyances that we and many other operators no doubt deal with all the time in the world of using drones for TV and film work.
“Freefly Alta design and engineering are top notch, this looks like a next level system, sleek and complete – its a system that simply would not be possible as a one-off in-house build.”
We were lucky to be one of the first to receive our Alta direct from Freefly at the beginning of august. And first impressions were good. The design and engineering are top notch, this looks like a sleek and complete next level system. Its a system that simply would not be possible as a one-off in-house build, a system like this has to be mass produced to justify the development costs. The way such a large system folds into a pretty small case is awesome, we have a smaller x8 system that only goes in a case about twice the size! The toad in the hole and quick release anti vibration system is also another great feature. That said, Lets get the bad bits out of the way next…
The Bad Bits
Its not great in windy conditions. Even after tuning it for both light and heavy payloads, its at best twitchy and most of the time quite bouncy in the wind, I’m talking gusts up to 15mph but even in winds less than 10mph you will notice it. I’m comparing this to our X8 system which has an all up weight of around 11.5kg with a GH4 and I happily fly this in 20-30mh winds and get pretty perfect footage. But Flying the Alta with an M5 in winds approaching 20mph and I didn’t feel comfortable in how it behaved and couldn’t not get stable footage out of it as it was just moving around too much. Maybe higher pitch props would help – I would sacrifice a bit of efficiency for better wind performance. *See my update at the bottom of the page… i’m happier now!*
Gains or Stiffness settings as Freefly call them definitely need to be adjusted for various payloads, I’m generally finding they need to be higher for medium payloads than the defaults and much higher for heavy payloads. To be honest I am still tweaking and I think maybe I can get them a bit better for wind resistance, its just annoying as I kind of hoped (and got the impression from Freefly that I wouldn’t have to be testing and tuning it this much. Freefly should release some recommended settings for various payload brackets – because they know every system is pretty much identical, this should be quite easy to get close to what we need… or even better auto-tune in a future firmware upgrade would be awesome!
The other big(ish) issue wont effect everyone. But for those that want to fly Epics or Minis the 6.8kg payload limit is tough. Bare in mind that to get the full 6.8kg you need to fly light 9ah packs, at sea level. Using 10ah packs? You have 6.3kg to play with, flying at 2000ft ASL? That’s another kg lost almost, 5.5kg left, an M15 weighs 2.3kg, so that’s 3.2kg left for camera, lens, FIZ and Filters. We recently used an Epic Dragon Carbon in those exact conditions on a shoot in the Lakes and thank god it was a carbon – even with the 1lb weight saving on the normal Epic we could only just add a focus motor, the lens had to be under 700g and there wasn’t room for a matte box, luckily we had a 95mm thread ND that did the job. So full cine set-ups are out. You can definitely fly a set-up that will produce cine level results but not without sacrifices, whether it be the Iris motor, the matte box, or that lovely anamorphic lens, at least one of them will have to go.
“The Freefly Alta will definitely fly a set-up that will produce cine level results, but not without sacrifices, whether it be the Iris motor, the matte box, or that lovely anamorphic lens, at least one of them will have to go.”
Other niggles I have are that the bottom battery cage mount is very tight for our 10ah Gens Ace packs, we have to remove screws to change batteries which isn’t ideal, or quick. Balancing the gimbal pan axis is a pain when you swap lenses in the middle of know-where (see right)! The GPS isn’t particularly reliable when the camera is top mounted. The Wi-Fi antenna catches on the battery cage when the Alta is in the case and the booms can be damaged when in transit if the case is handled roughly.
These small issues can and will be addressed by Freefly through service bulletins. They have dispatched the parts needed for free and all new systems sent out will already include the fixes. Customer service is obviously very important to Freefly and they are addressing these small problems quickly which is certainly nice to see. And this leads on quite nicely to the good bits…
The Good Bits
We were in the Lake District (for those not from the UK, its in the North West, mountains and lakes, and its beautiful) filming road and mountain biking for an Ad at about 2000ft ASL. From the 4am call time to wrap at 9pm we had blue skies and zero wind which was beautiful. As I mentioned earlier, We were flying a lightweight Epic Carbon set up on an M15.
I was flying at low level tracking ahead of road cyclists coming over the pass pushing 40mph, and from there pushing into a fast climb to reveal the epic landscape. The Alta was awesome, it flies like nothing else I have ever flown, the smoothness, precision and power combine to to give you the tools to create some truly stunning shots. It just feels so much easier to consistently fly these kind of manoeuvres than with other systems. Here, I understood why the Alta has payload limits, because at heavier payloads I doubt it could move this fast or accurately without being much bigger and heavier… which would have meant I couldn’t have strapped it to by back to climb to the next location higher up the mountain. Here the movements required to track a bloke carrying his mountain bike on his back up a steep slope were a lot smaller and more specific and again the Alta made it pretty easy, the GPS hold combined with the velocity clamping feature allowed for really slow and precise moves, flying very close to the subject and giving us some amazing results.
The Alta certainly proved its worth, in windy conditions it may well have been a different story, but then again, even with a more wind-resistant co-axial system i’m not sure I would have had the confidence to fly as fast or as close as I did with the Alta, let alone hiking up a mountain with a massive x8 strapped to by back!
What about that tag line #looktothesky… The Alta top-mount feature is awesome, we’re already getting shots simply not possible any other way – the last time I said that was after flying our very first helicam system. A good example comes from the other day when we were filming a stunt for a UK TV show that involved a man being hung of the side of a viaduct by his feet and then dropped several meters. Again we were lucky to have relatively low winds and the Alta performed flawlessly, made even more apparent by other kit failures (anyone just updated their Atomos Shogun firmware? If not, don’t!). Along with the standard reveal shots and high wides we top mounted the camera which allowed us to pull off a shot where we started below, looking directly up at him and as he fell we swooped up to come level with him and the viaduct in the background, a pretty unique shot that would have been difficult if not impossible with a large crane.
So, it doesn’t fly great in the wind and it cant fly full cine set-ups, but it can fly fast and accurately, its reliable, and so smooth, you can easily transport it, and you can mount the camera on top. Freefly really have developed an incredible drone here, and its efficient. Yes our X8 will fly a gh4 in high winds, for about 10mins, but the Alta will fly the same payload wit the same batteries, for 20mins, that’s a massive efficiency gain.
I’ll sum everything up with another example. We had two options for this job i’m on now up here in Scotland. Depending on the wind I was ideally going to fly the Alta and gh4 to give us maximum air time as its for a live broadcast, but if the winds were higher I was going to use the x8. However I’m actually sitting here in the van writing this review because its too windy, and too wet to fly anything… So as usual what it comes down to is the right tool for the job(/weather!), just like selecting a camera or any other bit of kit there’s always the best tool for the job and I think a lot of the time that will be the Alta, sometimes not, and sometimes it wont even be a drone at all, unless its waterproof, and windproof, and keeps rain away from the lens… so, Alta 2 Freefly?
“There’s always the best tool for the job, I think a lot of the time that will be the Freefly Alta.”
10th October 2015 – Since writing this review I’ve had a bit more of a chance to tune the Alta, and fly it more in windy conditions and with the recent recall, I felt I should add an update.
In short I’m much happier with it in windy conditions than I was. Flying in GPS mode still results in twitchy behavior, but with a bit of tuning and flying in manual or height hold modes it does handle wind pretty well, with a well tuned gimbal its certainly capable of getting stable footage in 20mph winds. We have also used in on a couple more jobs, down in London we were capturing still using a 5DS and 50mm lens and (with no wind) the GPS hold mode worked very well alongside the M5, allowing us to capture pin sharp stills. We also had the chance to test it in the rain on a job, it got pretty soaked and kept ongoing no problem, unfortunately the camera didn’t!
I’m more and more impressed with the Altas performance the more I use it. That said, I was surprised when Freefly recently grounded all Altas and issued a recall. The reason was they had identified that after unfolding and folding the arms 200 or so times, the signal wire to the motor was fraying, which could cause major issues, be it very unlikely whilst airborne. I’ve got to say, that whilst this is an annoyance, it is completely the right thing to do, and I’m very happy Freefly reacted as they have. Going back to what I said at the beginning of this review, this could easily have happened with a more custom built system and never been identified until something went wrong. You always need a back up system, but at least with the Alta Freefly keep testing and identifying any possible issues in way that no other company has to date – this gives me piece of mind, and when we get the Alta back i’ll trust it even more.